Sunday, September 01, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage / Zane Grey
Sanbornville, N.H. :, Large Print Book Co., 2008, c1912.
361 p.

On my Western kick after reading The Cowboy & The Cossack, I decided to read one of the most famous Westerns of all, by an author I have read other titles from previously. My library has it in large print, newly reprinted in an "American Classics" series. This was written in 1912, but set in 1871, taking place in the canyons and highlands of Southwest Utah.

It's a complicated plot, centering around a gunman, Lassiter, a Mormon woman, Jane Withersteen, one of her riders, Bern Venters, and Bess, the woman he rescues from rustlers. It focuses on Mormon settlement in Utah, and takes the position that the Mormon men use their religion for purposes of power and lust, for women and for land. Lassiter, the archetypal gunman, is known as the "killer of Mormons", and yet acknowledges to Jane Withersteen that he has met many decent Mormons, though he believes their creed leads to corruption and evil.

When I first started reading, I wondered whether "Riders of the Purple Prose" might be a more accurate title! Grey describes the settings extensively; it's one of his hallmarks that he makes the landscape as much a part of the story as the plot. In his hands, the land itself is a symbol and a reflection of his themes of independence, morality, honour, and the vitality of isolation. I found the storyline a bit tedious and overblown, with Jane's stubborn refusal to admit that the Mormon men she knows are acting against her openly and secretly. The themes of honour and love and so forth are a bit heavy-handed, and of course this book is dated according to our modern eyes. But I did enjoy parts -- the sections with Venters and Bess living in their isolated Surprise Valley in the canyons were interesting, mainly for the description! These two characters felt fresher and more alive than Jane and Lassiter, although they are all linked, in more ways than we first realize.

Jane finally admits she must leave her ranch, and she and Lassiter flee to Surprise Valley. Along the way they encounter Venters and Bess, who are leaving Utah altogether, and since only two people can outrun the Mormons on the good horses, Venters and Bess take the horses and Jane and Lassiter take the burros and continue on to Surprise Valley. They rescue Fay, a small girl that Jane had adopted, and end up permanentlyshutting themselves into Surprise Valley when they start a landslide to avoid pursuit (an occurrence that has been heavily foreshadowed for most of the book).

This is a complicated, Western melodrama (for full exposition of the plot, you can check out the Wikipedia article -- and who knew that there have been 5 movie/tv versions?) I found it denser and more portentous than some of Grey's later work, but in any case, this novel was extremely successful, and led to a sequel just a few years later, giving us the story of what happened to Jane, Lassiter and Fay.

Rainbow Trail, or The Desert Crucible

The sequel was published in 1915 as The Rainbow Trail, but has been released more recently with the full original manuscript as The Desert Crucible. I read it in this recent paperback. It follows the themes of the original novel, but is set ten years later.

Although Venters and Bess, at the end of Riders of the Purple Sage had mentioned returning to Utah to rescue Jane and Lassiter, they never did. It's been ten years that they've been stuck in the valley. As this book opens, Shefford rides into Utah. He's a former preacher who has left the church, and is following the romantic tale of Fay Larkin and her parents, told to him by a friend, who happens to be Bern Venters. His goal is to find Surprise Valley and release all three captives.

Of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as planned. Shefford connects with a trader named Withers, who he begins working for, and through him develops an important friendship with Nas-Te-Bega, a Navajo. In working for Withers, Shefford comes to awareness of a secret settlement of Mormon wives. At the time of the story, polygamy was being persecuted in Utah, so the older Mormons have created a small town of sorts just barely across the border in Arizona where they keep all their superfluous wives. Shefford takes supplies in, and of course falls in love with the youngest, quietest and most beautiful of the wives.

At some point he realizes who this young woman is, and with the assistance of Nas-Te-Bega they escape from the town, ride to Surprise Valley to rescue Jane and Lassiter, and flee down the canyons to ride the rapids to freedom.

I thought that this book was much better than the first. Less philosophizing, more action, and a great escape. The travails of Shefford and company after they leave the Mormon settlement and head down into the wilderness are described thoroughly. The mystical nature of the landscape is there, along with the practical experience -- the pebbles underfoot, the silence, scorching heat, roaring river and the terrifying ride down the rapids in all its watery violence. The ending is also satisfying, as the four characters from the first novel meet up again in peace and friendship, "back East" in Illinois.

There was also more openness to the Mormon settlers in this book. Grey, through his characters Shefford and Withers, allows that the older, fundamentalist Mormons are still set on empire and polygamy, but the younger Mormon men and women are less likely to believe in or support things like multiple wives. They are also less antagonistic to "Gentiles" (non-Mormons). I do find it a bit amusing that someone like Zane Grey, who was married but had multiple, continual affairs, is so insistent on the issue of polygamy in both these books. While I didn't think that either novel was utterly without fault, Grey can certainly evoke a place, and create drama, even if does devolve into melodrama now and again.

After reading these novels, I have found that I'm very interested in Grey's own life. His relationship with this wife, who acted as his editor and business manager, is particularly intriguing, so thank goodness there is a published collection of their letters, Dolly & Zane Grey: Letters from a Marriage. It's on my reading list now.


  1. Sounds like you are definitely on a cowboy kick!

    1. Oh yes! Looking forward to some of the new 'modern' westerns coming out this year too...


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